You're doing WHAT?
That's HOW far?
Are you CRAZY?
Yes, my friends and I ran a 50K trail race.
That's a little over 31 miles.
And yes, I'm thinking I might be a little crazy.
I'm not sure exactly WHEN the idea formulated, but sometime around the summer of 2016, my running partner, Cassie, and I were talking about future goals. We had both done a couple of marathons and had other friends who had completed ultra marathons (anything over the 26.2 full marathon, usually 50K, 50-milers, even 100-milers). Cassie decided she wanted to run a 50K before her 30th birthday, which is the summer of 2017. During a long run one Saturday, we decided that we would seek out a race and do it. There were a couple of other girls on the run that day, including our friend, Jennifer. We all said that it would be cool to attempt a 50K. I mean, it's just 5 more than a marathon, right?
As the summer turned into fall, Cassie, Jennifer, and I started running more and more together. Cassie and I set out and accomplished the Bourbon Chase Ragnar Relay, and Marshall University Half Marathons. Jennifer and I ran the Country Music Highway Half Marathon together (the first time I hit the sub-2-hour time). Sometime over the fall, I had a conversation with a Facebook friend about ultras in the area. She had suggested Playin' Possum 50K as a great one for beginners. It was north of Columbus, in Delaware, Ohio, which would certainly be a drivable distance for us. (Originally, Cassie and I explored the idea of doing "Rim to Rim" around the Grand Canyon, but cost was prohibitive.) As we looked into the course, "Possum" seemed quite doable, and the New Year's Day price was right, so we all three signed up. We were gonna do this!
Training was headed up by Cassie, our fearless leader. She worked out an awesome 20-week training plan and kept us informed of the long runs each weekend. The best thing about having TWO running partners is that when one is unavailable, you can usually run with the other. That is just about how this season went. All three of us are in very different stages of our lives, with different demands of family and work. We managed to schedule a few races together that fit into our training schedule, like Fallen Timbers 15K Trail Run and the St. Patty's Half Marathon in Louisville, KY. During the winter months, I ran several weekends solo, or split up the long runs, due to my kids' basketball game schedules or other family activities/travel. Other times, one of the other girls would have work obligations and I would run with only one of them. We tried to do as many Saturday runs together as possible. We completed as much as a 22-miler as a trio, and then Cassie ran Hall of Fame Marathon in Canton, Ohio, and then following weekend, Jennifer and I ran the Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon. I can't explain the kind of bond that comes from spending HOURS pounding the pavement together. God has truly blessed us!
When it came to race day, we had already run the 15K trail race, 2 half marathons, and 1 full marathon in preparation. Our longest "training runs" were 22-23 miles. Cold, wind, rain, hot sun,...we had run in it all. We were PHYSICALLY ready. But, ask any runner...especially a distance runner...and they will tell you that this kind of run requires more MENTAL toughness than anything else.
Playin' Possum 50K was held in the Delaware State Park, in Delaware, Ohio, just north of Columbus. The race directors, volunteers, and participants were amazing, kind, and super laid-back. The atmosphere was incredible. Packet pickup was held in the same picnic pavilion as the starting line, so we went on Friday evening to pick up our bibs and little goody bags of Playin' Possum 50K water bottles, stickers, and tech t-shirts. The weather was chilly, as it had rained during the day, but it was supposed to warm up for Saturday's race.
Saturday morning, we got up nice and early to prepare and get out to the park around 6:45am. The race start time was 7:30am, so that gave us time to park, use the facilities, and get ourselves ready.
My biggest fears about this race...the things that made me the most nervous...had nothing to do with the distance, the elevation, or the trail itself. I had just finished the Pittsburgh Marathon 13 days prior with a PR, I knew that even if I was walking by Mile 31, I was going to finish. I was already told that this was a great beginner course, because the elevation gain was not terrible. And while I am not a seasoned trail runner by any stretch, I knew I would be ok with running that terrain. No, the things I was most worried about were: having to go to the bathroom in the woods and crossing through knee-high water. Let's just go ahead and say it: I'm not what you call "the outdoorsy-type."
As we arrived in the starting area (picnic shelter, remember), I quickly located the "restrooms." There were three short-doored stalls with toilet seats on basically giant pipes into the ground. There was toilet paper and hand sanitizer. While most people would not prefer these "toilets," I was THRILLED to have a door, toilet paper, a seat, and sanitizer! Thank you, Lord! Ok, one fear gone. I was told that we would pass the starting area again at Mile 8 and Mile 20. Ok, I can wait until those points to go...I'll be alright.
The second fear: crossing water. We had been told that the one area we would certainly cross could be as high as waist-level. With the storms that had passed through, we had no idea what we would be in for. I was thankful that I packed an extra pair of running shoes and running socks, just in case. More on that in a bit...
Before the start, the race directors gathered the brand new, first-time ultra runners for a pep talk and a picture. 56 out of 127 runners were first-timers! We were told that when we finish, our reward was not only the horseshoe, but we also got to sign our names on the poles of the start/finish line, forever marking our first ultra!
After the pep talk, everyone gathered around for final instructions and we learned that proceeds went to Special Olympics of Delaware County, Ohio! Over $20,000 was raised between this race and a couple of others for the Special Olympics. It was truly a special moment when we were led by one sweet girl in the Special Olympics Oath. After that, everyone just turned in the direction of the course (no real starting line) and we heard "3, 2, 1, GO!" and the whole crowd took off in the direction of the little pink flags! It was kind of crazy to not have a gun or starting line, but off we went!
When I tried to look at the course map, I got a bit confused and overwhelmed, so I decided to just go with the flow and not worry about it. I heard people say that we hit the start/finish pavilion at Miles 8 and 20, and the first 8 were an out-and-back. Ok, I can do this. Jennifer, Cassie, and I headed out and stayed together really well. We met some other friendly runners, some doing this for the first time, too, and simply enjoyed the cooler air and cloud-covered woods. When the miles clicked by on my watch, we were running consistently between 10:00-10:45 pace. For the road, I would be disappointed with my first miles being that pace, but for trail, that was AWESOME! Maybe a little TOO awesome. I worried about going out too fast and losing steam later.
I could hear seasoned ultra runners in my head telling me, "Fuel early and often. Drink before you think you need to. Eat before you think you need to." But, for the first 8 miles, I barely drank anything and didn't eat anything either. While many wore hydration vests, I simply carried a small water bottle of Sword hydration in my skirt pocket, and dried pineapple, extra Sword powder, and paper towels (you know, in case I needed to "go") in the other pocket. So, at the water stops, I mostly drank water and refilled my water bottle (which diluted the Sword eventually, but I had extra powder to add along the way). Honestly, I enjoyed the first 8 miles and felt pretty good! We reached the pavilion and Cassie and I stopped at that "restroom," and felt even better. Jennifer didn't stop, so we said "bye," and blessed and released our sweet running friend.
The next section was another part of trail we hadn't been through yet. Miles 8-9 were pretty uneventful, still going at a good pace, and still around other runners. Then, we hit the water crossing. It was certainly not waist-deep, but it was about mid-calf. We were going to have soaked feet, and there was nothing we could do about it. The temperature was heating up, so when I walked through that water, it honestly felt very refreshing! And then came the "squish." You know, that sound when you have wet socks and shoes? Oh, it lingered on. Did I mention, I'm probably the only person who wore regular road shoes, versus trail shoes? What's the difference? Tread. Trail shoes have higher tread on them to grip the uneven surfaces, whereas road shoes don't. But, since this was only my second trail race EVER, I didn't know that I should invest in more shoes at this point. Anyway, squishy shoes and I kept going. I don't know this woman, but I found this picture of the crossing, so you could see...isn't she fabulous?
After the water crossing, it was a little ways until we reached the Dam Wall. This section is that one that everyone loves to hate. Long, high, and completely exposed to full sun. The good news is, it's flat, and just running in grass. The other good part was that Cassie and I were still together, making the time go by faster, even if we weren't talking. And, when we ran the first part of it, the clouds were still making it bearable. I can't remember exactly, but this was about Miles 11-12 or so.
When we reached the end, it was just before the actual Dam (grated bridge). We made a sharp right down a paved decline, and headed back into the woods for a bit. When we got near the end of the woods, I saw a picnic pavilion, and was excited about another aid station...but the nearest pavilion was empty. I'm pretty sure my face looked like a disappointed three-year-old. Until...I saw the real aid station at another pavilion just a few yards away. YAY! At that aid station, they had a variety of snacks, water, gatorade, and pickles. My calves were feeling tight at this point, and salt is usually a good option to help that. I decided I needed the pickle. The odd thing is, I hate pickles! I turned to Cassie and said, "I don't even LIKE pickles!" as I chomped down another bite. I threw away the last bite and we took off running again. Back up the incline, back on the wall.
As we crossed over the dam, we talked with a couple of guys who had done this race several times. They complimented us on how strong we looked and gave us a few heads up on what to expect next...mainly more wall. When we FINALLY got off the wall, we ran on a road for a while. Nice change of pace, but the sun was fully out by then.
Mile 15 was the next aid station, and there was a small out and back to get there. We spotted Jennifer and waved her on, and looked forward to the aid station. This one had more of the same, but also Mt. Dew and Coca-Cola. I couldn't believe it! Who would drink POP during a race? Well, then I saw Cassie take some and say how good it tasted, and something told me that it was a good choice. So...I took a 1/2 dixie cup full of Coke. Cassie just about fell over laughing, saying she was going to expose me to Facebook that I drank Coke! I REALLY don't like that stuff. There is something about ultras that apparently makes me want crazy, awful things like pickles and Coke!
Thankfully, we didn't have to go back to the wall...at least not yet. We ran a gravel/paved road for a while after that, trying to figure out how we would get dumped back onto the wall. Finally, we found the turn, and back on the wall we went...back in the hot sun. As much as I didn't feel like running anymore, I thanked Cassie for being there with me, because if it weren't for my fear of being alone, I would not have run as much as I did without walking. Running with my friend made me better.
And then back over the grated dam bridge we went. Then back down the decline, into the woods, and up to the picnic pavilions again. This was about Mile 17 and we decided to stop at the bathrooms there. These were better than the start/finish potties...they FLUSHED and had sink and soap! Then, back up the incline, back on the wall we went.
Half-way back to the woods, I felt something in my left shoe, on the pad of my foot. It could have been anything, since we had gone through the water crossing and then ran through grass, trails, and gravel for miles. But, all I knew was that it bothered me. I was ready to get back to Mile 20. I knew once I got there, I could change socks and shoes, and I thought I had moleskin in my bag, just in case. We finally got back off that dam wall and back into the woods. Back through the water crossing, and it was SO refreshing, I wanted to just lay down in it, but refrained. More miles to run.
By Mile 19, I was excited to get back to the aid station, but the longer we ran, the more I realized it was further than I thought. I was getting tired, and Cassie was getting a lead on me. There was a section of road and parking lot, so I kept her in sight. Then, back into the woods. It was shortly after I got back into the woods that I tripped on something and despite my best efforts to save myself, I fell. I fell hard enough that I completely rolled, but praise the Lord, I was not hurt at all! I was so thankful, but also a bit overwhelmed. I could feel my breath getting shorter and felt tears coming (which makes running so much harder). There were two other girls who were running near us during this time. Cassie had run on ahead, and since she had earphones in, she didn't hear me fall, but the other girls did. They stopped to see if I was okay and encouraged me that I was doing well. No injuries, except my pride. It was about Mile 20, and I was tired, mentally exhausted, and we hadn't reached that aid station yet. Liars! Turns out the shelter WASN'T at Mile 20, more like Mile 21. Maybe that isn't a big deal to some, but after 20 miles, I was MORE than ready to see that shelter! Delaying it was AWFUL.
I knew once I reached that aid station, I would meet back up with Cassie. It was kind of a whirlwind. I was tired, legs were crampy, and I had to change my shoes. Cassie's husband, Randy, was the best crew for us. He went and grabbed my drop bag, while I sat and untied my shoes. I found baby wipes that Jennifer had given us a week before, just in case, and cleaned off my feet. There was a slew of stuff at that picnic shelter, from vaseline to cookies. I was frantically looking for my moleskin, but realized it was in the car. I spotted a Barbie bandaid on the table and put that over the broken skin on my foot. Then, fresh socks and shoes went on. THAT was a HUGE blessing. Cassie was ready to rock and roll by then, so I filled up my water bottle again and dumped in my last bag of Sword powder. I don't even remember eating anything at that point, but I still had dried pineapple in my skirt pocket for an emergency. Just before leaving the area, I thought I might have biofreeze in my bag...I did! I ripped open the sample packet and slathered it all over my calves. AMAZING! Then...off we went!
As soon as we headed away from the shelter, my watch clicked over to Mile 21. I yelled back at one of the volunteers, "I just hit 21...is it 10 more miles, or 11?" He assured me it was 10. (LIAR!) I knew that I was moving at a slower pace than my speedy friend, so with earbuds in, Cassie didn't realize that I blessed and released her into the woods...just like Jennifer at Mile 8. Honestly, it felt good to go my own pace, slow as it was. I had taken ZERO pictures of the course up to this point, and I KNEW I would make it to the finish, so why not enjoy it?
I kept running, and walking, no cadence or method to the intervals. I really couldn't. Trail is SO different from road. On the road, I can plan intervals, breaks, when to eat, etc. On the trail, the terrain would decide when I walked. Bridges, rocky hills, tree roots, and mud were simply random obstacles on the path. Grace. I had to give myself grace. The temperature was rising, and I could feel it. I felt like as long as I was moving, I was good. Just don't stop moving.
From Mile 21-25 was the same route that we took from Mile 1-4. I recognized that we had been there earlier in the morning, and I knew at the end of it was an aid station again. By Mile 23, I was running better and realized that my foot didn't hurt anymore, so I was grateful. I figured in my head that I had 8 more miles to go, and even if I was WALKING and had a 15-minute pace, I would be done in two more hours, and under 6:30.
I had been running ahead of another girl in a skirt, and when I stopped for a picture, she caught up to me and we chatted for a bit. I think that was what made Miles 19-23 the hardest for me: I just didn't have anyone to talk with, so the miles went by very slowly. When I started talking with that other runner, all of a sudden, I was at Mile 24 and feeling good!
The aid station at Mile 25 had water, gatorade, and a variety of snacks again. I filled up with colder water (yay!) and looked around at food. Homemade peanut butter protein balls were there and sounded good, so I popped one in and overheard someone say the course was really more like 32 miles. Uhhhh...Not what you want to tell someone who has already run 25 miles of trail. I asked to make sure I heard right, and yes, it was really one MORE mile than I thought. I took a deep breath and gave myself a little pep talk as I walked away from that aid station. I also realized protein balls are a bit hard on the stomach and that was not a great idea.
From Mile 25, I had to go BACK the way I came, and the off to another out-and-back. We were told about this last one, where you had to go deeper into the woods, find a book, tear out a page to prove you had made it to that point, and then take it to the Mile 25 aid station again (which was about Mile 29 at that point). When I went into that last out-and-back, I realized I would hit over a marathon distance in that section! WOOHOO!
It was encouraging to pass runners and all of us shout affirmations to each other, but also a bit depressing because I knew I had so much more to go. I spotted Jennifer and she ran to me with open arms and gave me a big sweaty hug on her way out of the section. She said, "I'm SO DONE!" I asked her what mileage she had, and she said 28-something. I was at close to 25-something. Ok, not too bad. She's 3 miles ahead. I kept looking for Cassie and wondering where the heck this dang book was, and FINALLY saw her. She said, "the book is just ahead...and there's WATER!"
I a little bit later....I SAW IT AT LAST: A garbage can, water cooler, and a book with a sign:
I refilled my water, tore a page out of the book and put it in my pocket, and then looked at my watch a few steps later: I did it. I passed the marathon distance. I was an ultra marathoner!
Back on the same trail I went, hoping to get out of that section, and back to the aid station. THEN, I would only have a few miles left. Some moments I was proud of myself for still running. Other moments, I was disappointed I wasn't running more. But mostly, I kept saying, "This is crazy! I'm STILL ABLE to run!!!" I finally got out of the deep woods and back on the part of the trail I had done twice before. Back to the aid station. Refilled my bottle, grabbed a 1/4 peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and realized I had 3 more miles left. Three.
The last section of the trail was a new one. We hadn't run it before. There was one spot where the pink flags seemed to go two different directions, and I was questioning my judgment. I was right, but there was no one around me to find out for sure. Every pink flag was validation that I wasn't losing my mind, but I felt confident that I was.
I looked at my watch and I was at 29.88. Almost to 30 miles. 30 MILES!!! That's NUTS! Who goes out and runs 30 MILES?? Every sound I heard, I thought I must be close to the finish line. Then, I would see families fishing or playing at campgrounds, and I was reminded that we were in a state park on a Saturday. It wasn't the finish line. It was just the general public enjoying a beautiful day. Drat! Then...my watch bid farewell. Yup. It died on me. Just before Mile 30. Oh, don't worry, it delightfully declared that my run was saved. WHAT??? But, I'm not done!!! This ISN'T the end of my run! I'm STILL RUNNING!!! I don't know if I said that out loud, but no one was around to witness the outburst, whether real or imaginary.
So, I ran the last almost two miles blind. Not REALLY blind, but trail runs have no mile markers, and I had no clue how much farther. Eventually, that last bit of trail met up with the original one we had run several times, so I knew the ending of the route, but wasn't sure how much further that really was. It FELT like I was running blind. When I came out of the woods for the second to last time, there was always a volunteer at that point, making sure we continued on the right way and cheering us on. The nice man said, "You're doing great! Almost there!" I said, "Hmm, I've heard that 'almost there' stuff before!" (I'm pretty sure that if anyone says those three little words to me any time in the near future, I might punch them...just a little. I'm sorry...please don't tell me I'm ALMOST THERE, unless I can SEE the finish line. THAT is "almost there," not another MILE away!!)
The last little bit was through families playing in the park. I looked like death. I tried to ignore them. Everything hurt, but not the same kind of hurt that I felt at the end of the Pittsburgh Marathon. One last bit of woods before the finish. I did everything I could to stay strong, but I walked a bit in those woods, where no one could see. I wanted to run strong when I could see the finish. I got out and saw the parking area for that start/finish picnic shelter. I REALLY WAS almost there! The course was lined with signs for all the first ultra marathoners. It took me a minute to realize what they were, and then I spotted mine! I said I wasn't going to walk, but I stopped for a picture anyways.
Then, I ran all the way around the signs and above everyone else, I could hear Jennifer whistling and Cassie yelling for me. I ran in under that FINISH LINE sign and was immediately greeted with congratulations! It was AMAZING.
I took my horseshoe with pride. We got some pictures, and then I was given the giant Sharpie so I could write my name on the pole. I did it. WE DID IT.
The question after you finish a new distance is always, "Will you do it again?" It's hard to think about it at this point, but I do know that I am ABLE to do more than I think I can do, because it is Christ Who gives me STRENGTH. I give God all the glory and praise for carrying me through not only this race, but the 20 weeks of training that went into it.
Will I do another ultra? Maybe. I realize that I am much more comfortable with road races, but the beauty of the trail is enticing. There is certainly a different atmosphere around ultrarunning. The community is amazing and I love the laid-back nature of it all. For now, I will rest, regroup, and then pick up training again. Chicago Marathon is waiting for me on October 8th! 2017 is the year of the bucket list, and I plan to enjoy EVERY moment!
Wife. Mother. Runner. Coach. Adoption Advocate. I strive to share HOPE through my journey and help others reach their goals.